Speed kills. But the lack of it can maim athletes or put them on the shelf for months.
Two years after joining a research partnership with a Boston neurology group, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Professor Gary Wilkerson and company are ready to use their findings to train local high school athletes to improve their reaction times and decrease their susceptibility to injuries.
While the past couple of years were spent working with them to determine reaction time while they wore virtual reality (VR) goggles, Wilkerson recently began a training program that gets progressively more challenging. The goal is to speed reaction times by milliseconds so athletes can avoid contact or gird for it by contracting their muscles.
“It’s not just concussions but overall injuries,” Wilkerson said. “What I believe it’s doing is giving us a way to present a challenge that requires visual detection, resolution of conflicting information and decision making that gets converted into proper muscle response.”
Chattanooga Christian School began the VR training in mid-July and is hoping for positive results, along with 50 female soccer players from Girls Preparatory and Baylor schools.
“Last year it was more geared toward injury prediction, where we looked at baseline testing and then tracked injuries throughout the season looking for predictors in the athletes that were injured,” CCS head athletic trainer and UTC alum Jordan McDaniel said. “This year, we are using it as a training program to hopefully be able to decrease injury risk. We are hoping by doing this training to be able to increase their reaction time and processing speed to be able to prevent the injuries from occurring again in this upcoming season.
“The Graduate Athletic Training Program at UTC is one of the best in the country,” she said. “They always recruit top-notch students to be a part of their program, and the high schools in the area benefit from these students that participate in clinical rotations. These clinical rotations give the graduate students hands-on experiences out in the field, and they get to build relationships with preceptors and learn underneath them.”
A preceptor is a certified athletic trainer or physician who supervises UTC’s grad students at sites ranging from area high schools to Emory University, Covenant College and the Erlanger Sports and Health Institute.
“Something that really helps us are many of our preceptors are also graduates of our program. They’re giving back to us. That’s what makes the relationship special,” said Dr. Lynette Carlson, assistant professor and athletic training clinical education coordinator. “It’s vital to our program. We really rely on our community partners and preceptors who are supervisors of our students when they’re out on rotation.”
When UTC began its athletic training program in the late 1990s, it was a “train wreck,” said Dr. Marisa Colston, who joined UTC 25 years ago and today is a professor and head of the University’s Health and Human Performance Department. Within five years of its launch, UTC’s program gained accreditation by what now is known as the Committee on Accreditation for Athletic Training Education, she said. UTC became the second graduate program in the country to be accredited, not long after the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Chattanooga orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jeremy Bruce recently hired UTC graduate Andrew Wilson to coordinate his office’s orthopedic resident research program, said Colston, who champions the virtual reality research.
“I think the evidence that Dr. Wilkerson has uncovered through his data collection and analysis supports that there are subtle effects and changes following concussions, mild and traumatic brain injuries, even just sub-concussive impacts that accumulate over time if you’ve never had a concussion. Now it’s just getting everybody to understand it. That’s the issue because coaches don’t want to know who’s going to get hurt,” she said.
Around 1998 when UTC’s athletic training program began, it was for already credentialed and licensed trainers just looking for advanced knowledge. Now, a bachelor’s degree can get you admitted to the program as long as you have the prerequisite science courses—anatomy, biology, kinesiology, nutrition, to name some.
It has become a top-20 school in the country for athletic training, Colston said.
Wilkerson has researched the connection between the brain and other injuries for about 15 years. He was inducted into the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Hall of Fame in 2016 and was awarded the NATA Foundation Medal for Distinguished Research in 2019.
Wilkerson said that the virtual reality training program with the girls’ soccer programs at GPS, Baylor and CCS is a “great example” of integrating research, graduate student education and the community. It measures four different levels: eye movements (the speed of eye pupils), the speed and amplitude of the neck rotation, the speed of the arm moving to set targets and whole body mass displacement that comes from lunges. The measurements include reaction time for objects inside and outside an athlete’s peripheral vision.
Wilkerson gave a personal example. He and his wife were in a car recently when he spotted another vehicle coming at them. Within a few milliseconds, Wilkerson jerked his car to the left and stopped it just inches away from the other vehicle.
The partnership with Boston’s React Neuro “has provided the opportunity for our students to work with cutting-edge technology, which is advancing our understanding of brain processes that relate to injury risk and providing valuable benefits to local high school athletes,” he said.